When I first discovered feminism I was livid. How had I managed to go my entire life blissfully unaware of the depths of my own oppression? In fact, prior to my feminist discovery, I wouldn’t have even considered myself oppressed. I was navigating the world blissfully unaware of the misogynistic, patriarchal society we live in and the gender based discrimination that comes with it as an unwanted package deal.
Feminism pulled off the rose tinted glasses that the patriarchy had forced onto me during my exit from the womb and suddenly my whole existence and subsequently my oppression, had never been clearer. Those who have been through their own feminist self discovery will know the pain of re analysing your entire life through a patriarchal lens and being suddenly aware of all the closed doors, missed opportunities and limitations that you were previously naive to. I recall reading Laura Bates’ book ‘Everyday Sexism’ and having flashbacks of my life that would leave me raging, as I was able to finally observe the level of sexism that I had been subjected to. I was desperate to [un]learn and re educate myself on gender inequality and the patriarchal structure designed to oppress me. I was so all consumed with MY discrimination, re analysing MY life through a new feminist filter that I hadn’t paused to consider that women are not a homogenous group with identical levels of oppression. I was centering myself and therefore solely focusing on my lived experience as a straight, white cis gendered woman. I was unknowingly excluding women from my feminism by the privileged assumption that we all experience gender based discrimination the same, when that is far from the case. I needed to learn about intersectionality, acknowledge my own privilege and diversify my reading lists if I wanted to truly progress my feminism.
Intersectional Feminism is a term coined in 1989 by Kimberle Crenshaw, in her 2016 Ted Talk she explains ‘I began to use the term “intersectionality” to deal with the fact that many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice’. Essentially, intersectionality is the recognition that different societal groups will experience discrimination in alternative ways and that most people will experience more than one form of prejudice as a result of their identity. It’s the acknowledgement that marginalised communities are fighting multiple stigmas and injustices alongside their fight for gender equality. Within feminism we must understand that for women experiencing overlapping discrimination they will have different priorities within the movement. For example, black women experience racial discrimination on a systemic level that endangers their lives in a way that is unknown to me as a white woman. Their lived experience as a woman is different to mine because it intersects with their experience of being black. Mikki Kendal discusses this in her book Hood Feminism, ‘while white women are an oppressed group, they still wield more power than any other group of women – including the power to oppress both men and women of colour’. Part of being an intersectional feminist is acknowledging the unearned ways my white privilege protects me from further oppression and understanding that institutional racism means black women and women of colour inevitably face heightened discrimination. Black women are currently 5 times more likely to die in childbirth in the UK than white women, this appalling statistic is undoubtedly a feminist issue which needs to be addressed. Just because this is an issue affecting only black women, it doesn’t mean they should be left alone to fight the battle over birth mortality rates.
The cross roads of the racism and sexism encountered by black women is often referred to as ‘misogynoir’. They face racial stereotypes from society, labelled as “strong” “promiscuous” or “sassy” which inevitably perpetuates institutional racial bias such as the adultification of young black girls or that black women are more immune to pain. Ruth Etiesit Samuel writes about the danger of racially profiling black women in her teen vogue article titled The ‘Strong Black Woman’ Stereotype Is Dangerous. She highlights the complexities of dealing with multiple layers of oppression “We experience racism from non-Black women, who throw their faux solidarity to the wind when we bring light to issues that affect us specifically. From cishet Black men, we experience physical assault, harassment, misogynoir, and gaslighting, though we fight for them relentlessly”. She continues to analyse the dangerous stereotyping of young black girls “These assumptions lead to the hyper-sexualization of Black girls in our own communities, with Black men calling them “fast” or promiscuous and engaging in predatory behaviour towards them.” Ultimately the endlessly layered discriminations faced by black women makes them one of the most oppressed and at risk groups within society. Being an intersectional feminist means acknowledging and speaking up about these issues even though I am not directly affected by them. This means ensuring that I am fighting for the rights of ALL women in an inclusive way. Including black women, WoC, indigenous women, disabled women, trans women, non binary people and anyone else from the queer community who are part of the feminist movement.
Whilst discussing intersectionality I think it’s important to mention a type of feminism that has recently received a lot of attention in the media, which is Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism, or commonly known as TERF(s). This relates to women who brand themselves as feminists but actively eliminate trans women from the movement. I find it frustrating that TERFs are still labelled feminists, because for me, the deliberate erasure of an entire group of women from your [self titled] ‘feminism’ is extremely un feminist. It goes against everything the movement stands for. It denies the existence of trans women and perpetuates a harmful narrative that gender is strictly binary. If you don’t see trans women as women then you’re not a feminist. Whilst the terminology of ‘TERF’ is open for debate, the standards they practice are not. Deliberately eliminating any societal group from feminism is not feminism and shouldn’t be labelled as such.
Unfortunately women outside of my own privilege have had less of a voice in what was traditionally a movement that centered white middle class women. Many of whom were solely invested in furthering their own rights with no regard for improving the rights of women from marginalised communities. Therefore as an intersectional feminist, I can never lose sight of the fact that for every privilege tick box I check, it equally ticks an oppression box for someone else. It’s my responsibility to amplify the voices of women who have previously been silenced. As it stands, women as a societal group are not equal and that needs to change. Like I said before, we aren’t a homogenous group, so when we are fighting for equality to men we must recognise that this wouldn’t automatically translate to equality for all women. Closing the gender pay gap won’t have a ripple effect on the birth mortality rates of black women. In fact closing the gender pay gap itself won’t automatically include non white women who face further disparities within their salary because of systemic racism. Within the structures of being female there are different degrees of oppression and as a societal group we must aim to level them out.
Intersectional feminism for me isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity. It’s important to take accountability for the ways that feminism as a movement has been historically whitewashed and whilst progress is happening, we still have a long way to go with regards to inclusivity. We must work together to eliminate all forms of oppression, not just the ones directly affecting us as individuals. In order to achieve this we must be intersectional in our approach.
Hayley Rose Dean